S4 E14. In Ukraine, Hell — and Hope

Five Russian soldiers squatted for weeks with a Ukrainian family, unwelcome. What they learned is telling.

On April 20, a 69-year-old man observes what is left of his home in a village near Kyiv destroyed by Russian forces. Roughly a third of the country’s 44 million residents have been displaced in the conflict, according to UN estimates. It’s the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. And the war rages on, as Putin’s army bears down on the eastern front. Still, from the horror and the ashes a stronger Ukraine may yet emerge, our guest today says. And even in Russia, there are signs that an authoritarian regime’s stranglehold on civil society may yet crack — sparking something like a rerun of the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Russian forces have pulled back from around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. They’ve left the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv. But farther east and south, the fighting has intensified, and the civilian death toll is mounting. How will this war end? What will remain of Ukraine? And are European powers doing enough to punish Russia for its devastating invasion? Journalist Peter Pomerantsev — recently back from covering the conflict for the Atlantic — helps Will and Siva parse a complex picture.

A Ukrainian mother and child seek refuge in Romania. The United Nations estimates that some 13 million people have been displaced since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Pomerantsev tells the story of one Ukrainian family who survived several weeks confined in their cellar with a handful of Russian soldiers. Slowly but surely, the Horbonos family chipped away at the lies their uninvited visitors had swallowed from their own government. This story serves as a kind of allegory for how Russia might ultimately lose the war, Pomerantsev says, despite its military might and its domestic propaganda machine. In the meantime, he argues, Western nations must maintain a unified front, in their sanctions and their rhetoric, and make ready to help Ukrainians rebuild their country.

About our guest

Peter Pomerantsev is a British journalist, author and TV producer who was born in Kyiv. Currently a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute of Johns Hopkins University, Pomerantsev recently returned from Ukraine, where he was reporting for the Atlantic. He has advised governments on information wars and media development and has written extensively about post-Soviet Russia and the role disinformation played in derailing its democratic aspirations. His two books are Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (Public Affairs, 2014) and This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (Public Affairs, 2019). Follow Pomerantsev on Twitter @peterpomeranzev.

This episode was released on June 1, 2022.

What we’re reading

By our guest

In This Is Not Propaganda, Pomerantsev explores how disinformation has shaped global politics from Moscow to Manilla. Along the way, he goes into greater detail on his background as the son of dissidents who fled the Soviet empire.

Should the world cut a deal with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, striking a new balance of power in Eastern Europe and allowing him to save face? No, Pomerantsev argues in a new piece in the Guardian.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible looks at Russian broadcast television and the powerful hold it has over its viewers.

As the war got underway, Pomerantsev called on Western advertisers to cut off support for Russian media, which have helped spread the Kremlin’s absurd claim that its invasion is intended to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

Most media in Russia are controlled by the Kremlin. Here, Putin appears on TV in his annual address to the Russian people, in 2019.

Photograph by Zhenya Voevodina via Shutterstock.com

But the story of the Horbonoses and their time living with Russian soldiers, Pomerantsev writes, suggests that support for the war in Russia is thinner than it may seem.

Last year, Pomerantsev and colleague Anne Applebaum offered some insight on how democratic habits, eroded under the weight an internet wired for profit, might be renewed.

Read all of Pomerantsev’s work for the Atlantic. He has also written for The American Interest, on topics such as the flawed “marketplace of ideas” metaphor and internet regulation.

Zelensky addresses a special session of the European Parliament in Brussels, on March 1.

Photograph by Alexandros Michailidis

A wheat field in Ukraine, on a sunny day before the war. The Russian military has effectively blockaded Ukraine’s grain exports.

Photographs via Shutterstock.com

From around the web

Russian forces have focused their offensive on the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine and are pounding the city of Severodonetsk, home to a major chemical plant.

For those who have stayed behind, daily life brings with it odd moments. In Makariv, a village near Kyiv, a little girl stands atop a captured Russian tank.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

In March, Putin signed a censorship law criminalizing any reporting that contradicts his government’s official version of events. Russia maintains that its invasion of Ukraine is not a war but a “special military operation.”

With the news so tightly controlled, most Russians probably haven’t heard of the resignation last week of Boris Bondarev, a mid-ranking diplomat to the United Nations. Bondarev said he was horrified that his native Russia had become “a threat to the world.”

Photograph by Zhenya Voevodina via Shutterstock.com

Russian police detain an antiwar protester in St. Petersburg in March.


Below, a bombed-out school in Kharkiv. Russian airstrikes have targeted a number of Ukrainian schools, including one in Luhansk that was being used as a shelter.

Photograph by via Shutterstock.com

The European Union is moving this week to all but ban Russian oil imports and to curtail insurance companies from covering Moscow’s exports.

Such sanctions have severely hurt the Russian economy, but the ruble has risen as the Russian central bank moves quickly to lower interest rates and prevent a complete collapse.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, is cutting off natural gas to some European nations and cutting deals with others.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

Our theme music is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

At the top of this week’s show, you’ll hear audio from multiple news sources, including reports from NBC in Severodonetsk and Luhansk; CNN in Kyiv and Moscow; UN Radio in Poland; the Guardian in Ukraine and Russia; and ABC in Kharkiv; as well as a France 24 broadcast in March analyzing Russian dissent. We also included a bit of Zelensky speaking, through a translator, in a virtual address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, on May 23.

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